Collaboration, Community, Connection: A week with the Yoga Service Council





The third leg of my fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust took me to New York State for 5 days of collaboration with the Yoga Service Council  at the Omega Institute, a globally recognised retreat centre to co-create Best Practice Guidelines for Yoga and Addiction Recovery  with a group of 20+ leaders in the field of yoga programming for addiction recovery.

The Yoga Service Council (YSC) is a US based not for profit organisation,  committed to strengthening the field of yoga service. They work to: 1) facilitate collaboration and community building, 2) promote excellence in education and training, 3) support leadership and organisational development, and 4) advocate for social responsibility and ethical action.

They define Yoga Service as

“an intentional sharing of yoga practices that support healing and build resilience for all, regardless of circumstances taught within a context of conscious relationship rooted in self reflection and self inquiry”

(Yoga Service Council 2018)

Generally, the term yoga service is used when discussing yoga programmes that run out-with the context of a regular yoga studio or class and that reach populations who may experience challenge in accessing these public and often prohibitively expensive classes. The yoga service movement is undoubtedly growing and as with all Western yoga movements what is happening in the US eventually heads to Europe and the UK. As people continue to question the dominant narrative, particularly in the media, that has been created around yoga culture there is increasing recognition of the need to actively challenge this by offering alternatives that focus on inclusivity, accessibility and trauma informed practice. At Edinburgh Community Yoga our vision and mission are aligned to this goal, and for this reason we are committed members of the YSC and were delighted to have the opportunity to be included in this work.

The Yoga Service Council are working to create a range of best practice guidelines (BPG) for working with specific groups, in recognition of the fact that there is often confusion, disparate opinions and a plethora of trainings around many different types of yoga service. Previous publications include BPG on working with veterans, in the criminal justice system and with survivors of sexual trauma. The BPGs are designed for anyone looking for information on how to create yoga programming within the relevant setting; yoga teachers, policy makers and organisational staff and they are written in such a way as to be understood by everyone.

The purpose of this years symposium was to create a set of best practice guidelines around yoga and mindfulness for working with addiction. The Yoga Service Councils approach to this process is innovative and creative. A group of yoga teachers, therapists, psychologists and other experts in this field are brought together for a week, focussing on a collaborative group discussion process to identify best practice guidelines. This process is captured by designated writers who then turn the conversation into a written draft which is shared with group members for editing and refining. It is unusual to see collaboration happening in this way, and though certainly not without challenge what results is a shared co-creation that promotes self inquiry, deep and emotional/intellectual self reflection, the opportunity to ask deep questions about our own and each others reactions, behaviours and opinions and a chance to work and learn from the work of others. The directors of the organisation Pamela Stokes-Eggleston and Amina Naru created a safe and courageous space for us to come together to do this work. Their vast experience in the field of yoga service, clear vision, wisdom and ability to hold space for challenging work created a strong and stable base for the project to develop. Being offered the opportunity to work with an inspiring and committed group of compassionate individuals who have taken their own life experiences and used it to create healing and promote wellbeing in the field of addiction provided a rich learning and sharing environment where good work could happen.

As the only European (Brexit denier) representative of the group, it was a unique opportunity to be able to lean from others and also to contribute perspective from the UK, and to begin to  build and develop  connections in yoga service between the US and the UK. As the field of yoga outreach/yoga service undeniably grows it is becoming evident that there is a need for organisations like the YSC to foster communication, collaboration and information sharing. As with the other opportunities offered by the fellowship, personally the opportunity to spend time with people with a wealth of experience in the field was invaluable for my own learning and for the development of ECY as we move forward. The chance to work with socially aware and diverse group of people let to interesting conversations around social justice,  and some of the challenges around power dynamics and how we engage with yoga in a way that does not reinforce systems of oppression. This is an interesting conversation (read Matthew Remskis book Practice and All is Coming if this is of interest). 

Culturally there was interesting parallels and dissonance in some of the conversations around what is happening in the yoga world in the US/UK  and how we maintain the meaning and depth of the tradition of the practice while recognising the cultural appropriation that is inherent in the West teaching yoga especially as we modify the practice to meet the needs of specific groups. Hard conversations were had and  need to be had around some of the complexity of this work, and the discussions were not always easy but they feel important and necessary in todays world.  I was reminded of the need to question and reflect on my own opinions, to learn from others and also to be able to speak up with confidence in my experience and perspective. Being British seems to bring a less emotional, and slightly more pragmatic approach to group work and several of my new friends from North America commented on the no nonsense attitude to getting a job done that my Britishness brought to the group. This, and the opportunity to observe a more self reflective community who were able to express emotional needs and feelings in a way we don’t often experience in the UK gave me a perspective that I would not have experienced had I not had this opportunity.

Spending a week meeting interesting  people with big hearts in a beautiful retreat centre talking yoga, addiction and best practice was the fun part; the hard work starts now as we begin the 12 month process of creating the final version of the BPG for publication. I will  author 2 chapters of the Best Practice Guidelines. This feels like a really great achievement and outcome from the fellowship as I consider the fact that 7 years ago I was trying really hard to set up one yoga class within the recovery community.

I look forward to creating ongoing collaboration with the YSC and some of the organisations/individuals I spent time with. We are hoping to launch a UK network of the YSC and are exploring the potential for some cross fertilisation of ideas, concepts and learning between the US/Canada and the UK.

Witnessing the diversity and depth of commitment to the work of  this global movement to making yoga inclusive and accessible across all races, genders and socio-economic backgrounds was deeply encouraging and as I prepared to end this part of the fellowship and move on to visit the Africa Yoga Project and learn about their model it felt good to to have made lifelong connections, mentors, peers and friends during this experience.